Nipple Shields: life-saver, supply -wrecker or just another tool for nursing mothers?

 by Jenny Thomas, MD, MPH, IBCLC, FAAP, FABM

I confess, I didn’t know what a nipple shield was back in the day when I was still a very smart but breastfeeding “knowledge- challenged” pediatrician. I did know that whatever they were, they were bad. Very bad. “Never” use them under any circumstances. Ever.

Later, when my niece was born, in a hospital hundreds, nay thousands, or millions of miles away from me, imagine my horror as I found out that she needed a nipple shield to latch. This was bad. I didn’t know why. But it had to stop. So, as unsupportively as I could imagine (in retrospect) I told my sister to stop using that thing! I hadn’t met my niece yet, but I knew that she was less than 5 pounds soaking wet and that nipple thingy was going to ruin her chances of getting into the Ivy League.

One of my dearest friends in the world needed to use a shield when her second child was born. She asked for one when her third was born and was told “no” by the staff caring for her in the hospital. To me, it just was further proof that their use was fraught with problems.

I’m smarter now, at least I’m less breastfeeding-challenged, and I know better than to use the words “never” or “always” and to deny to a request without providing education and informed consent. And I’ve heard too many stories of success to discount the benefits of nipple shields for some mothers and babies. But the fact remains that we have no guidelines for nipple shield use. We have few studies rigorously done that show they are effective.

A nipple shield is a gadget that is placed over the nipple and areolar area. It looks sort of like a nipple (sort of), or a sombrero, but is made of plastic and there are different types. You can get them online and over the counter. The problem with them stems from studies (with flaws in the method in which they were done) that concluded that the use of the shield could decrease milk supply, were associated with more supplementation, and lead to early weaning.

That meant that if they were to be used, the dyad using them would need to be carefully followed, but many mothers were getting them and no follow up was scheduled. I’m not sure the logical result of that should be a compete ban on their use, but, well, they were highly discouraged. Of course, those studies were with older versions of the shield, and other research (with flaws in the method in which they were done) with newer versions of the shield suggested this wasn’t as a big a problem as we thought. But many of those same concerns exist. We honestly don’t know the short-term or long-term effects of nipple shield use.

Nipple shields are often given out in the nursery for “flat” nipples. My guess (no data, so definitely flawed study method) is that the nipples are puffy. And if that’s the case, this might be something to try.

They are often given out for a poor latch as a quick fix to a more complex problem, but we need to remember basics: skin to skin, baby-lead latch, biological nurturing. And asking for help from someone who is board certified in lactation, an “IBCLC.” The shield should not be a first step.

If it’s given to you because your nipples are sore, then in addition to the shield, we need somebody to fix the underlying problem and be your cheerleader and you heal and transition back to the breast. (Find a Lactation Consultant!)

So, suggestions:
If you are given a nipple shield ask why. Informed consent for any intervention means that you are given the required information, in an understandable manner that allows your voluntary participation and that helps in making a decision for a course of action. Questions you can ask to help fulfill informed consent: Why am I getting this thing? How long do I use it? How will it help? Might it hurt? What other things might I try? What type of follow up do I need?

If you are given a shield, and it works, well, cool. You need follow up by somebody who knows something about breastfeeding so we can work on the underlying issue that initially caused the need for the shield.

If you were given a shield and don’t like it, well, let’s get you some assistance and fix whatever the issue is that requires a gadget to fix it so we can go gadget-less.

Shields are meant to be temporary solutions. If you are still using it when your baby is months old, we really should be able to help you stop using it, if you want us to.

If you are given a shield, it works well, you baby is growing and you’re happy but everyone around you is like “ooooooh, those things are bad’ you have my permission to hear everything that that person says after that in the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher (you remember that voice, or am I showing my age?)

Resources:
Baby led- breastfeeding:http://www.geddesproduction.com/breast-feeding-baby-led.php
Biological Nurturing: http://www.biologicalnurturing.com/
Skin-to-skin http://massbfc.org/providers/SkinToSkin.pdf
Find a lactation consultant: http://www.ilca.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3432

Health professionals’ attitudes and use of nipple shields for breastfeeding women. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20524842
Nipple shields: a review of the literature. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20807104

 

 

 

Dr. Jenny Thomas, MD, MPH, IBCLC, FAAP, FABM is a general pediatrician and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in southeastern Wisconsin. Find her sound, evidence-based and helpful advice on parenting at www.drjen4kids.com and Lakeshore Medical Breastfeeding Medicine Clinic.

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